I joined the local Hunt Club in 1998 and began almost straight away helping at the front end with the hounds. This often involved long hours in the saddle, 5-6 hours wasn’t unusual, and the horses having to cope with varied and often hilly and/or rocky terrain. I started with a thoroughbred mare but soon realized that I would need to have 2-3 horses on the go at any one time to allow for illness or injury. So I set about purchasing a couple of crossbred horses, one Clydesdale x thoroughbred and 2 percheron x thoroughbreds. Throughout this time one of the pervading problems was keeping shoes on the horses as the rocky terrain would regularly pull or loosen shoes. I had a very strict fitness programme and found that the horses had quite heavy feed requirements, often dropping considerable weight over the season. The Clyde x had white feet and would only just make it through the season without his feet falling apart.
Finally, at the suggestion of my riding instructor, and in desperation, I asked a barefoot trimmer to see Coughan, a lame horse. She was my first contact with the barefoot concept. She agreed to treat the horse and gave me some literature to read about barefooting. I was immediately interested as I felt that it seemed to make sense and there was good scientific backup for it, allaying any usual suspicions of quackery that my medical background is very sensitive to!
At her suggestion, I took the plunge and we began the process of barefooting all the hunting horses. It was spring, so we had until autumn to get something happening. I used boots when exercising and when the hunt season started in March, Andrew Bowe, who had joined the team to trim the hunt horses, suggested that we trial aluminium tips on the front feet while the ground was hard to give some toe height and protection. This worked brilliantly and we stayed with the tips until close to the end of the season in August when we took the tips off and they went barefoot front and back.
The hunting horses and barefooting: Development and progress
The horses are about to complete their fourth season of hunting barefoot. Between them they manage 40-50 hunts per year and have had no injuries. We continue to tip and I have to admit to being amazed that the little aluminium tips that Andrew tacks on with 4 pony nails NEVER come off! We thunder up and down the rocky ridges of Yarck and the central highlands and crash around in the rocks at Barwon and they still stay on. The horses are fit, can do 30 or 40 km in a hunt, have 30% less feed requirements than in the past and haven’t suffered any drop in weight this season. We have not been troubled with the horses slipping or loosing their footing. In fact they seem more confident than before.
The front end horses ( like mine) are required to go anywhere and quickly, including over fences and through any natural obstacles that may present themselves. The horses have continued to perform and, if anything, have gained in confidence.
There has been no terrain that we haven’t been able to travel over and they are the only horses that can confidently trot the pressed metal bridges that we encounter occasionally.
Separate observations of unseen benefits with barefooting
There are problems in hunting rocky country as seen in areas of the western district as horses often break down in this type of terrain. I am more confident now because I know that my horses can feel with their feet and may be able to avoid injury . Rather than being concerned if they short stride on hard surfaces I see this as their way of taking care to avoid injury. Once they got the feeling back in their feet they seem to take more care where they tread and will often choose their own path.
The longevity of the flimsy tips convinces me that barefoot horses have a different action compared with shod horses. Harvey, my clyde x used to wear out the toes of his heavy steel shoes in 6 weeks. Andrew’s soft aluminium tips last the 4 weeks and there are times when there is so little wear that we just trim and put the old ones back on. This fits in with the observation that barefoot horses heel-toe rather than toe-heel.
As I have noted above, the horses have been in excellent health and have needed less feed, to the tune of about 30%. An added benefit has been that Harvey’s white feet are very healthy these days and he gets to the end of the season with better feet than when he started. With barefoot horses it seems that the more work the better the feet. I have also noticed that his white feet are now a deep yellow in colour, I suspect because of the increase in the circulation to the feet once the shoes are removed.
Any downside for barefooting
The Yarra Valley is a difficult climate in which to barefoot, especially over winter, and hunting is a hard sport to cater for as it requires the horses to have good grip as well as well conditioned feet that will cope with a multitude of terrain. If we have a wet summer or, as happened a couple of years ago, I am away and the horses aren’t worked over summer, then it can be difficult to keep the feet hard. But I am happy to work with this and either boots or tips get us through. I think that you learn to be patient and you also learn that the horse isn’t a machine to be driven without consideration on any surface. Some people see this as a limitation. I see it as an opportunity to work with the horse within his natural limits.
I now have 8 horses at home, including 3 youngsters, 2 of which I have bred. All the horses are barefoot and the 2 young ones currently in work have never had shoes on and cope perfectly with any terrain put to them, even though they aren’t in full work and fully fit. I can see no reason whatsoever to return to shoeing the horses and hope that over this summer, by attending some trimming courses, I will be able to take a more active role in the maintenance of my horses feet.